Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A Coalition electoral pact would mean the end of the Liberal Democrats

Every now and again, some bright spark in the Conservative Party suggests an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats, or that the coalition may survive after the next election in 2015. Most recent is Francis Maude who apparently believes that the Coalition should continue after 2015 even if the Conservative Party has a majority! The benefits for the Cameron clan are obvious. Firstly there is the fear that pro-government votes could split between the two coalition partners, and secondly Cameron appears to be rather enjoying coalition government. Much comment has been made of Cameron’s supposed use of Liberal Democrats as ‘human shields’ but less commented upon is the way in which the Liberal Democrats allow Cameron to jettison unpopular or unlikely policies in his manifesto beloved by the Conservative right and truly govern from the centre: no Inheritance Tax cut, no extremely difficult negotiations with the EU over attempted repatriation of powers and a much more liberal prisons and crime policy. One occasionally suspects that in some areas Cameron and Clegg find themselves more in agreement than with some of their own party’s. So for Cameron such a deal would be very much A Good Thing, and for the Liberal Democrats it may look superficially look, a guarantee of a return of Lib Dem MPs, and a likely place in government despite poll ratings that are less than encouraging.

Yet it is my view that to do so would be for the party to risk its own existence. The big problem with coalition for the party is that the party is finding it extremely difficult to keep its identity separate from that of the government as a whole. This is always a problem for junior parties in coalitions; inevitably most policy comes from the senior party. In this case to the big issue is economics policy and the essential tenor of Coalition economic policy is by far and away slanted towards the Conservative Party – the Coalition deal essentially being a deal where certain Liberal Democrat policies were exchanged for support for the Conservative cuts programme. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that in reality the majority of Britons only know a handful of Lib Dem policies – support for PR and abolition of tuition fees being the most important. Often times coalition policy is proposed and the public may well like it, but they do not realise it is Liberal Democrat policy as is likely to happen with this week’s announcement of a universal ‘citizens pension’ which is very similar to prior Lib Dem policy.

A united Coalition election deal would only serve to increase this identity crisis. The party would essentially become an annex of the Conservative Party like Liberals of day past like the Liberal Unionist Party or the National Liberals. It is worth remembering that there are a lot of MPs in the Lib Dems who view themselves as left-wing and hate the Conservative Party, as well as a lot of activists and such a deal risks inviting an ideological split between the party’s internal left and right. It is also worth remembering that even those on the right of the party still generally hold pro-European values, liberal views on crime and immigration and a radical view of constitutional change in Britain, there is a reason why they joined the Liberal Democrats and not the Conservatives. Finally it is worth remembering that there is a section of the Conservative Party which has no love for the Lib Dems either. Nadine Dorries MP is a bit of an oddball but she was not just speaking for herself when she said that the Lib Dems were “more opposite to my beliefs than Labour” and that she would “rather die” than form an electoral pact with them.

It may well be that as the Liberal Democrats enter the 2015 election the national picture looks bleak for them. Five years of Coalition will have undoubtedly had its strains as the party’s identity is squeezed. It is hard to imagine them scoring many gains in 2015, but even the party is wrecked by Coalition it should stand by itself. At least then it can guarantee the survival of the party, and from there it can rebuild. There is a place for the party in the party system, and its voters are not simply disaffected Conservatives or Labour supporters, but while I solemnly believe the party can survive a term in Coalition, campaigning as a Coalition and then a second term can only mean the end of the party, whether it means a merge into the Tories, or a more likely split into two.


  1. Funnily enough, Dorries' statement was the first reason many Lib Dems saw IN FAVOUR of such a pact... though that would be cruel to say ;)

  2. Quite right. We are an independent party with our own policies that we seek to implement through the ballot box. For the sake of the country, we have signed a five-year Coalition Agreemnet which we will honour. Next May will see us campaigning for a Yes vote in the AV referendum with the Tories and right-wing Labour supporting first past the post. In the 2015 election, we will seek a LibDem majority in parliament with a strong group of experienced ministers to head up a LibDem government.